An enticing train wreck
The greatest bane of computer games today is “early access,” where gamers actually pay for the privilege of beta-testing a game that isn’t quite finished yet. While I can see how a developer would love it—you get actual money for selling an unfinished game, and you don’t have to pay for any quality control!—it’s a real problem from a gamer’s point of view. Most game sales come from the initial release—you can go to Gog.com or gamersgate.com to purchase year-old ‘A’ titles at a steep discount, and bundles can get dozens of games like this for pennies on the dollar. Why bother fixing a broken game if you’ve already made most of the money you'll make? So, there’s not much motivation for a developer to improve or fix a busted game after that initial influx of sales.
That’s a problem for most early release games, the developers are in it for the money. Some devs make their games as a labor of love…and early release still doesn’t help. They never get the focus to sit down and finally focus on making the game great, instead getting distracted on improving or adding endless subsystems for the game (hi Dwarf Fortress!).
Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is, alas, a game that I fear will never reach its full potential as a design. I started playing in early access a year ago; it was a train wreck at release, with huge fundamental design flaws. I tried to offer suggestions, of course, but no dice—I don’t blame them, our legal system is so messed up concerning intellectual property that developers are understandably concerned about suggestions from the peanut gallery (same thing happened to me when I spoke to the developers of Planescape: Torment).
I drool every time I look at the map.
Anyway, the game is beautiful, very attractive. It’s a 4x title, but of the “old school” way (the last time I saw a game like this was Warlords, over 20 years ago). Yes, you’re conquering the world, and yes, you get a choice of starting situations, but the “old school” here is it’s always the same world. There’s no random generation here.
The long lost advantage to doing it this way is you can make a very deep world. Sovereignty is set in a fantasy universe, so you’ve got your orcs, dwarves, elves, and humans, along with sprinklings of walking trees and such. Each country has a backstory, and is filled with provinces with attractive names and many have special sites well worth conquering.
Sovereignty is a labor of love, so it probably won’t fall into the trap of most early access games…but outside of attractiveness, it falls short most everywhere else. Bottom line, game design is hard, and even if you’re a great programmer with a great concept and a great artist, if you don’t have the ability to design a game, you just can’t make a game that works properly.
Let’s go over the 4 X’s that a 4x game should have.
: To be fair, since this is an established game world, Sovereignty gets a pass here. You don’t have that silly “fog” that covers many game maps. That said, there could have been dungeons or places of power to explore, yielding interesting things.
: While there are short scenarios, most players play these games to conquer everything. This part of the game is unfinished, alas. You get a bonus unit after conquering 15 provinces but, after that, there’s literally nothing new you’ll see in the game. The game ends very abruptly when you conquer 200 provinces…but you’ll likely be bored long before then.
Oh look, we're past the first game year. Surpluses in everything.
: You can construct buildings in each province, and many countries have special buildings just for them. Some provinces have special resources to exploit, but again the design falls flat. A good part of the early game is conquering provinces with resources you need, but, by the mid-game, you just don’t need the resources. For example, many buildings require stone to construct, so having access to a stone quarry is a good idea. Or maybe you’ll need artwork to build a temple. Once you’ve built all the temples or whatever you want, then what? You’ll keep getting more and more artwork and stone, long past the point where you’ll have any use for it.
: Combat is a key part of these types of games, and it’s probably the best part of Sovereignty. Each country has its own array of units, in the typical categories of infantry (light and heavy), cavalry, archery, and siege. In addition, you have elite units. You can build 4 of each type (usually, there are lots of special rules). These guys take special resources (eg, beer for berserkers, gems for dragons)…you’ll again scramble to get the resources in the early game, but once you’ve built the units, you start having surpluses you’ll never exhaust. You can also buy generals to lead your armies; they come with cool special powers which improve when the general gains a level (only one level to gain for generals, though units have more room to improve with experience).
Quick and fun to watch. I'll take it.
Actual battle is good, but not stellar. There are two types, automatic and tactical. Automatic battle is fast, but a little random with no way to protect key units—if your army has no general, you’ll have to use this system, though you’ll find yourself using it often anyway. The tactical combat is a bit slower, of course, but it’s a little fun to move the units around and bash the enemy.
Armies have a maximum number of 20 units. If you attack a province with fortifications and a maximum-size defensive army, you’ll likely lose. So, you build up an army of scrub units, have them attack first, then follow up with the real army led by a general. There’s a bit more strategy to the game than that, but “overwhelming force” is a tried and true tactic for 4x games, so I can’t fault Sovereign for this weakness.
There’s also naval combat, but it’s messed up right now (having gone through various iterations of “messed up." already) There’s also a magic spell and research system, it’s minimal and needs work, too…that’s pretty much the theme for the whole game “nice ideas, but needs work.”
Even more than a year after early release, the game is still vulnerable to game-breaking crashes (i.e., crashes which happen every time you reload, so you can’t advance further in the game)…overall, Sovereign is just such a disappointment.
I’ve put many hours into it, so I guess it’s playable, but I really can’t recommend this except for game designers looking to see what ideas don’t work and how, so they can make their own games better.
Overall Rating: 50/100